North Fork Outdoors/Martin Garrell: What’s in a name? Well, it depends

We noted among all the fine ideas and excellent recipes offered by John Ross in a recent North Fork Chef column mention made of prized local fish in Ontario: perch, pike and pickerel. When we saw the reference to the latter, we had to smile. Local readers should be alert. The Canadian “pickerel” is a glorious food fish, but our very own North Fork pickerel, common to most ponds and rivers, is challenging table fare, to say the least.

When we lived in the Midwest, we traveled to the lake country of western Québec, Ontario, and even Manitoba. The glamour fish for the table was the walleye, a.k.a. pickerel in Ontario, in Québec, dore, or, occasionally, pike-perch, one of the largest members of the perch family.

Of all the fish brought into camp for meals, the walleye was by far the easiest to fillet and, with its firm flesh and varied diet, the best choice for the frying pan. Chef Ross was right on! But Canadians almost never see the true pickerel, a.k.a. chain pickerel or Eastern chain pickerel, of Long Island although they have plenty of pike and some muskellunge. All three members of the pike family have lean, very delicately flavored flesh that bakes rather well, but can be surprisingly fishy at times, unless you skin the catch. And unlike the perch clan, the pikes all have floating bones through the trunks of their bodies, bones that are very tricky to remove. When you dine on any of the pikes, especially the pickerel, table conversation must be held to a minimum!

If local names are tricky, market names for fish are even worse. Because it would be bad form to have consumers confuse Flipper the porpoise with the delectable dolphin of southern waters, because dolphinfish sounds awkward, and because the Mexican name “dorado” just didn’t stick, marketers went over to the Hawaiian “mahi.” The Patagonian tooth fish in Antarctic waters, unregulated as it was, would probably have been safe from severe depletion if no one had come up with the moniker, “Chilean sea bass.”

But this is only the beginning. When you dine in other areas of the country or the world, you get back to the walleye/pickerel-type conflict with a vengeance.

Many families of saltwater fish are distributed around the globe, e.g. the jacks, the mackerels, and porgies, but unless you get into the kitchen or, better, the market, the local names will leave you puzzled. The “kingfish” of Florida waters is the king mackerel along most of the eastern seaboard, a big mackerel that may top 50 pounds, but the kingfish of Peconic Bay fame, is a panfish, the Northern whiting. Both are good table fare, but far different in texture. The jack family has among its representatives the California yellowtail along with its close cousin, the greater (Atlantic) amberjack. Both brawlers grow to prodigious size, over 100 pounds. Catch the similar giant yellowtail on the other side of the Pacific, in New Zealand, and you’ll learn to call it “kingfish,” sometimes “yellowtail kingfish”!

All these fish are edible, but not top-drawer commercial fare. Just as a sidebar, the Florida Keys “yellowtail” is actually the diminutive yellowtail snapper, one of the finest eating fish on the Gulf markets.

Dining on “snapper” is probably the most fascinating mystery of all. What exactly are you eating? Everywhere you go, the snapper is a different food fish. We know Long Island snapper as juvenile bluefish. Oregonians refer to many species of rockfish as snapper, while the true snapper family has lots of representatives down south. (Try mutton, mangrove, red, Cubera, or the yellowtail mentioned above.) Kiwis absolutely love the New Zealand “snapper,” bringing us back to another of those worldwide families, the Sparidae, or porgies. When in Auckland we really couldn’t see any difference on the table between our North Fork scup and these “snapper” except for size. The whopping porgies down under often grow to 30 pounds or more.

Sometimes you enjoy a restaurant treat so good you feel like you just have to know what the fish was. Some five years back we found ourselves in a small restaurant in a Montréal suburb where the fish on the table was firm, but flaky, cod-like, but not listed as cod, and, of course, the sauce was terrific. The special menu named it “Lotte” and sent me back to the dictionary when I got home. When we found the Latin listing for “burbot” (Lota lota), we knew exactly what we had eaten, the only member of the cod family to be found in freshwater in North America and Europe, a cold water scavenger best caught in rivers using hook and line during fall and winter months. It must have taken some doing to get that fish on the menu; indeed, compliments to the chef!